The Power of a Point of View
Readers buy newspapers for information and opinion, but it's more often opinion that drives them around the bend -- as was abundantly clear to me in catching up on thousands of e-mails after vacation.
Understanding the separation and role of opinion and fact in a newspaper -- often on the same page -- is hard enough for even sophisticated readers.
Most columnists and editorial writers are idealists who want their work to build their version of a better world. Their job description is not to please readers but to drive them to think more deeply -- or to support a cause or to be horrified or pleased by what the writer has to say.
Columns and editorials are powerful tools to drive public opinion -- or to alienate readers. There aren't any good ones that don't sometimes do both. Editorial writers and columnists mean to enlighten, influence and connect with readers, public officials and anyone they can get to pay attention.
Although there were numerous complaints about a Sept. 1 editorial on the Valerie Plame case, there were hardly any complaints about The Post's endorsements in Tuesday's primary elections; most candidates endorsed by The Post won their races.
Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt said, "We take seriously the motto atop our column: 'An Independent Newspaper.' That means we are neither red nor blue but try to figure out what we think is best for the country or city or region on any given issue. On the editorial page, we try to make an argument and explain our reasoning, not just shout out an opinion, hoping that readers will be provoked, educated or stimulated even by -- or maybe especially by -- pieces with which they initially disagree. We listen to people who disagree with us respectfully. But in the end we shouldn't ask people to take the time to read our editorials if we're not usually going to come down one way or the other."
During my first two weeks here, Howard University students were furious at Metro columnist Courtland Milloy for saying that they were not politically motivated enough. The backlash was fearsome, and it pleased Milloy. He had done what he wanted to do: provoke them.
Metro columnist Marc Fisher said: "The column is the only element on the Metro page that is guaranteed to be on the front of all editions of the paper, in Virginia, Maryland and the District, so the columnist's job is to take readers to places and introduce them to people they might otherwise never see, to generate conversations across the many boundaries that divide us, and to mine the news to get to basic questions about why we live the way we do. My columns have a strong point of view, but I try hard to add facts and illustrate issues rather than simply making an argument."
Dana Milbank's job in writing Washington Sketch is to walk a fine line between observation and opinion; the ombudsman deals with those who think he crossed it. He reports Washington events with attitude: "My job is to cut through the 'he said/she said' journalistic conventions and tell readers what's really going on by bringing the sights, sounds and frequently noxious smells of the political scene to people who do not have the opportunity to witness it in person. It is by definition subjective, by design skeptical, but, in contrast to an op-ed column, observational rather than ideological."
Being a columnist is not for the faint-hearted. Neither is being a columnist's editor. Most good columnists push the edge of the envelope. It is in their nature to provoke not just readers but sometimes their editors, too. Milbank's boss, Deputy National Editor Maralee Schwartz, said, "My job is to make sure that the reader understands that Dana's observations are supported by the reporting and are not simply his opinion. There is always back-and-forth between us about this, sometimes over just the use of one word that may imply a personal judgment."
Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, assistant managing editor for sports, oversees an unruly lot of columnists. His take: "I want a columnist who understands that their job is to present arguments that make readers think. Doing that may make readers want to shove the newspaper down the columnist's throat. But I'll gladly pay for the tracheotomy if it means a reader has learned something along the way."
Most columnists and editorial writers have a strong sense of mission. Listen to Business columnist Steve Pearlstein, who educates me regularly: "What infuriates me is cant, deception and the lazy thinking that goes with conventional wisdom or blind ideology. As a glass-half-full person, I take it as my job to point out how much better things could be and try to rally people to the idea of thinking big, aiming high. Asking the questions that aren't being asked is often as important as commenting on the possible answers to the ones that are.
"The columns readers like most are the ones in which I tear into a company, or a politician, or a business practice, or the ones in which I lavish praise on a company, a politician or practice. These are not balanced pieces of journalism, certainly, in that they leave out some contrary arguments. People look to columnists to help make sense of the world, and that necessarily involves imposing some order on reality so that people can understand it."
A reminder to readers: Editorial opinion is not in my purview, and most columnists have wide latitude to write what they want, including the ombudsman.
Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.